Fix the economy, revamp health care, reduce global warming, pull out of Iraq and improve America's image in the world. And by the way – welcome to Washington.
So reads Barack Obama's dance card, a daunting to-do list coupled with high hopes. It offers him opportunities and hazards alike – a chance to outshine the unpopular George W. Bush, but with the risk of falling short of the public's substantial expectations.
Apart from dealing with the economy, the public's priorities for Obama in this ABC News/Washington Post poll include making major changes in the country's health care system (77 percent favor it), implementing policies to try to reduce global warming (75 percent) and withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in the next 16 months (70 percent).
Some specific sub-steps are popular as well: Within the aim of addressing global warming, 84 percent say Obama should require electric utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources. Within health care, 74 percent favor higher federal spending on children's health insurance. And within the overriding task of dealing with the economy, 66 percent favor a moratorium on home foreclosures.
Two other items tested on this list drew less support: Fifty-two percent said Obama should expand federal funding of stem-cell research, and well under half, 40 percent, said he should close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – something he's pledged to do "in a responsible way." That'll take some careful maneuvering given the public's division on the question; 44 percent in this poll oppose closing Guantanamo.
WHEN – Priority is not urgency, however, and – again apart from the economy – fewer say Obama should initiate action on these items right away after taking office. Fifty-five percent say he should act quickly to require more renewables in electric power generation, 51 percent say he should start right away to make major changes in the U.S. health care system, 50 percent favor fast action to increase funding for children's health insurance and 48 percent favor moving quickly to deter home foreclosures.
Fewer, 43 percent, say Obama should move quickly to withdraw from Iraq; 40 percent, to implement policies to reduce global warming; and 18 or 19 percent, to close Guantanamo or to fund stem-cell research.
PARTY – There are sharp partisan differences in support for action by Obama on many of these. Half or more Republicans do support his attempting major changes in the health care system and trying to address global warming – 53 and 50 percent, respectively – but that's vastly below the levels among Democrats and independents.
Support for withdrawing from Iraq, moreover, ranges from 87 percent of Democrats to 43 percent of Republicans; for funding stem-cell research, from 66 percent of Democrats to 37 percent of Republicans; for closing Guantanamo, from 52 percent of Democrats to 24 percent of Republicans. They're closer on two other issues, renewable energy sources and a foreclosure moratorium. But the list shows that beneath partisanship lie real differences in issue preferences and priorities.
EXPECTATIONS – As noted, expectations of Obama are running high: Seventy-seven percent believe he'll be able to improve the United States' image abroad, and 64 to 68 percent think he'll be able to end U.S. involvement in Iraq, implement global warming policies and make significant improvements in the health care system.
The danger to Obama is that unmet expectations can produce a negative response. At the same time, expectations are highest among his core supporters, Democrats, who are less likely to turn against him. Republicans are far more skeptical.
Also, expectations are most muted on Obama's greatest challenge, the economy. Given the challenges, 52 percent (especially Republicans, but also most independents) don't think he'll be able to do much to improve it.
HOPES and FEARS – Whatever the challenges ahead, 63 percent of Americans say they're more hopeful than fearful about what the year ahead holds for them (although, given economic conditions, that's down 10 points from 2006), and 54 percent are more hopeful than fearful about what the year will hold for the world in general.
Again, it's remarkable to note the extent that partisanship informs these views. In December 2004, after Bush's re-election, 88 percent of Republicans were personally hopeful for the year ahead; now just half as many are, 44 percent. And four years ago 53 percent of Democrats were personally hopeful. Now it's 75 percent.
In another measure, 68 percent describe themselves as optimistic about the policies Obama will pursue – including 45 percent of Republicans, rising to nearly nine in 10 Democrats. And surprisingly given other measures of economic discontent, 68 percent say that, thinking about the next 12 months, they're optimistic about their family's financial situation.
That may reflect a range of factors – an innate optimism; a sense that as bad as they are, things should improve in the year ahead; and, again, the weight of expectations on Barack Obama. Optimism about family finances is 16 points higher among people who also are optimistic about the policies he'll pursue as president.
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11-14, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3-point error margin; click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.